When I graduated from college, I lined up an Outward Bound trip instead of job interviews and whitewater-rafted 225 miles through the Grand Canyon. It was not the most responsible thing I've ever done, but it was by far one of the most rewarding.
Arizona was the 12th state I had visited by the time I was 22. It also was the farthest west I had been. There in the steep splendor of the Canyon anything seemed possible -- except, perhaps, landing a job -- and one night, around a campfire, we were asked to share a lifelong goal. "I want to visit all 50 states," I declared, having just thought of it. And then to up my game: "Before I retire."
And that was the start of it, this decades-long goal that recently culminated in a six-state road trip.
Each new state I visited was a sharp thrill and a check off the list. Moving to California for five years helped. By the time I hit 30, I had been to more than half the states and was on a roll. Georgia, Wyoming, Washington. Check, check, check.
To visit Oregon, I scheduled a training seminar in Portland instead of New York. During a trip to Jackson Hole, Wyo., we hopped a bus to Idaho (highly recommended) to ski for the day. To celebrate our son's first birthday, we took him to Santa Fe, N.M.
Over the years, I waited futilely for a conference invitation, wedding or any reason to hit a state less traveled: Alabama, Nebraska, North Dakota. Never happened. So, during a trip to New Orleans two years ago, we took a day to drive the Gulf Coast to visit Mobile and Biloxi. And that made 44.
Suddenly, the goal seemed within reach. All but one of the unvisited states bordered one another in a sprawling and road-challenging manner: Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota and Montana. I asked my husband, dare we do this in one trip?
State No. 45: Iowa
From my recent -- some would say obsessive -- questioning, I've surmised that most people don't know how many states they've visited. In the colorful and funky bar called El Bait Shop in our first stop of Des Moines, our friends Paul and Anne looked at us blankly when we asked the question.
OK, easier question: What does Des Moines mean? Recent transplants to the city, what they lack in civic knowledge they make up for in humor: "Des Moines is French for The Moines," Anne deadpanned. An-other reason I love traveling -- you learn so much on the road.
State No. 46: Nebraska
Travel soothes my restless soul and endlessly inspires me, from the modern and joyful sculpture garden in Des Moines to tango dancing in the streets of Buenos Aires. A wise traveler friend who has been to at least 50 countries once gave me sound advice: Don't compare places, but rather, enjoy each for what it offers.
On this trip, I thrilled to see the various grasses that make up the soulful prairies, the vast and changing big sky and the sea of tall sunflowers bending and waving from both sides of the highway.
And much more: Omaha's historic district is a treasure and "The Bob" a delight. Officially the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, the pedestrian- and biking-only bridge curves with great flair to the Iowa side of the Missouri River. We could have stood on that bridge and claimed two states, like standing on Four Corners and nailing a quartet. Which, for the record, I didn't do. All my states were hard fought and hard won.
State No. 47: South Dakota
We loved the roadside welcome signs that announced a new state, and we weren't the only enthusiasts pulling over for a quick, whoo-hoo snapshot. Once we saw a whole gang of Harleys parked as the owners posed under a sign, fists pumping air.
South Dakota is not to be missed. From Sioux Falls, with its waterfall and gorgeous pink quartzite to the endless rock formations of the Badlands and the preserved town of Deadwood, it's a traveler's dream. But the big surprise was The Crazy Horse Memorial. Ten times bigger than Mount Rushmore, this memorial site brings to life the fascinating story of both the Native American hero, Crazy Horse, and the Polish sculptor behind the mountainside monument.
We stayed longer than planned at Crazy Horse, after we put the rush in Rushmore. (Later, I was amused that Facebook asked me to tag the presidential faces -- "Who are these people?" -- on the photo I posted.)
State No. 48: North Dakota
Without this long-held goal, we never would have driven several hours north from Rapid City, S.D., to tiny Bowman, N.D., where we had lunch at Windy's on the wide and desolate main street. ("That's Windy's," said the clerk at the boot store. "Not Wendy's. We're not big enough for that.")
Newspaper humorist Dave Barry once disparaged the state of North Dakota in a column, so some folks there invited him back for a ceremony at which they named a wastewater-treatment plant after him. I have to be careful what I say here.
State No. 49: Montana
We wasted no time hitting the road for Billings, where we hiked the scenic rock trails on the butte overlooking the city. The next morning, we rolled into the charming western town of Cody, Wyo., in preparation for the trip highlight: Yellowstone National Park.
We enjoyed perfect weather in this treasure of a national park, with deep cobalt skies and puffy peppermint-white clouds that were as spectacular in their contours as the mountains they framed. Who knew we would be crisscrossing back into Montana several times along the way?
After two full days of slack-jawed wonder, we were Yellowstoned. And after 2,300 road miles, a fact I'm glad I didn't know upfront, it was time to return to our home state.
As road trips go, this six-state journey -- five of the states new to me -- was hard to beat. And I now have the satisfaction of being in all the lower 48, plus Hawaii, twice.
Elusive Alaska is the one state, along with North Dakota, that most people miss when they aim for 50. Now that I don't need it, there's an app, from the All Fifty Club, to keep track of how many states one has visited. The club's rule? You must touch the ground and breathe the air of the state to count it as one you visited. That's too lax in my book. I spent meaningful time in each state: the most in Arizona, on that two-week rafting trip, and the least in North Dakota, in Bowman. (Sorry, N.D.)
I could stop here and be assured of getting to Alaska one way or another because my sons, ever thoughtful, proposed scattering my ashes there someday and saving me the trip. Thanks, guys. But I'm so close -- to my goal, not to Alaska -- that we're planning a trip there next summer. It will be sweet to explore and savor only one state, as enormous as it is, and to cross off state No. 50 years before I retire. I will search for a roadside welcome sign and pose happily, fist pumping air.
And who knows, if time allows, it would be gratifying to take a quick boat ride across the Bering Strait to visit Russia. I've never been there, so it would be one more country on my list of 30 visited so far.
But then, who's counting?
Tracy Certo (firstname.lastname@example.org) is planning a trip to Thailand (No. 31) and Cambodia (No. 32) in January. The Mt. Lebanon resident is publisher and editor of the website Pop City.